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Archive for March, 2011

The Politics of Envy? The EDL and UK Uncut

March 31, 2011 10 comments

Today I return to the lumpen mass of idiocy that is the English Defence League (EDL) and their outrage at seeing a genuine movement of the people grow ever larger and actually have an impact.

Anyone who visits the EDL pages on Facebook and elsewhere will be aware that their objection to students, lefties and people who see fit to protest about subjects other than Islam is a long standing one. Virulently anti-intellectual and rabidly hostile, the general stance taken is that all non-EDL protesters are ‘unwashed, soap dodging, commie, Marxist, unemployed scum’ – this is in essence the same as their views on anyone opposed to them, they even seem to think that the protesters last weekend were all member of Unite Against Fascism (UAF), something that would surprise UAF themselves, I’d say.

This antagonistic approach to those protesting against the cuts seems to be at odds coming from a group claiming to represent the working people who will be most affected by the attack on public services. Turkeys voting for Christmas, or something deeper?

This screen shot clearly shows that the general stance against anti-cuts groups is one initiated by the EDL leadership:

As you can see there are a few EDL members brave enough to question the leadership’s dictat, but judging by the time lapses between the posts, they are the exception that proves the rule.

So, why would a group claiming to be for the working class, and one that regularly bemoans the ‘commie/Marxist’ government of Cameron (stop sniggering at the back), be so supportive of proposals that threaten to wreck working class communities?

The EDL proclaims itself to be a single issue, non-political group. Its mission statement states that it is a ‘human rights organisation’ (I said stop sniggering!) essentially dedicated to fighting radical Islam/sharia law (excellent piece on the statement here), and it has recently threatened to take action against journalists describing it as being a far right group. However, the EDL is ‘backed’ by right wing businessman Alan Lake – would it be silly to suggest that he may have a hand in deciding ‘policy’ on political matters such as this? To understand where Lake stands on the political spectrum, take a look at his ‘Final Solution’.

There is also a large, nay, massive amount of what can only be described as jealousy involved here. The EDL trumpet themselves as a ‘street army’ of working class folk fighting to defend all that is good about our country. Last weekend they saw exactly what that should look like and they didn’t enjoy it. As one person on Twitter pointed out, the anti-cuts march was measured in miles, whereas the EDL’s ‘big one’ in Luton struggled to cover one street. They will point to the online presence of 80,000 on their Facebook page, but have never managed to assemble more than a couple of thousand of these – of course, that online figure is itself inflated by the multiple accounts that many EDL members use in order to troll their opponents’ online presence, and also to serve the aforementioned boost to numbers. There are also a significant number of people who ‘Like’ the page in order to debate with the EDL.

Read the EDL pages this week and you will see them foaming at the mouth with insults and threats to the anti cuts movement, with particular ire being aimed at Uk Uncut. This is in the main prompted by the stance taken by the leadership, a leadership worried that despite their claims otherwise, the EDL have not taken over the streets, but others have. They whinge about the supposed criminality of the protesters, while ignoring their own.

In reality, they’re taking shots at a rhinoceros with pea shooters – the anti cuts movement is rapidly growing both in numbers and within the imagination of the public. The BNP is currently splitting itself asunder and showing the weakness of the far right and its strictest adherents when pressure is applied. There may soon come a tipping point for the EDL as well, with infighting and splits reported this very week, and in lashing out at new opponents the EDL leadership could be attempting to re-focus their troops. Their problem is, it’s still not working.

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The Troglodyte Wins

And so the fallout from Saturday’s events continues. I really shouldn’t be surprised at what’s being said and by whom, but I foolishly continue to let it anger me. Still, as John Lydon once sang, anger is an energy, although these days he seems to be powered in the main by sarcasm and butter.

The MSM have done exactly as we knew they would and created a narrative wherein sympathy is extended to the ‘peaceful’ protesters but the validity of the cause is put into question by the ‘riots’ that occurred outwith the main march and rally. I had hoped that there would be voices on what is being called the ‘mainstream left’ raised against these spurious claims and the lazy, cliched journalism that contained them, but, again, no surprises to be found here.

Talk of the march being hijacked abounds, and indeed it has been. Not by the unfairly maligned UK Uncut, or even the ‘anarchist’ Black Bloc events. Saturday’s march has been hijacked by the media and right wing politicians and, by proxy, the very institutions that put us in this mess. The establishment is riding on the coattails of of what should be seen as a huge success for an increasingly large number of us against the proposed destruction of the public sector and turning it to its own advantage. Just as the first black bloc confrontation was timed to coincide with Ed Miliband’s speech in Hyde Park, all of a sudden we had the announcement this morning of new powers being proposed for the police. It’s almost as if it had been scripted…

This may all sound a tad conspiracy theorist (my tin foil hat is in the wardrobe), but BBC footage caught a suspected plain clothes officer dressed as an ‘anarchist’ flashing a card/badge and moving across police lines from the Black Bloc group. See the footage here.

We have also learned that the UK Uncut protesters were allegedly deceived by the Met Police. Having described the event in Fortnum & Mason as being “non violent and sensible”, an Inspector told the protesters that they would be led outside to safety, but they were in fact arrested for aggravated trespass. This accounted for around 75% of the total arrests on Saturday, a nice boost to the figures, much better to have arrests in the hundreds so that the scale of ‘unrest’ can be exaggerated. More information and footage can be found here in the Guardian.

(By the way, someone on Twitter has number crunched and found that if the percentage of protesters arrested on Saturday was equal to the percentage of lawbreakers in Parliament, the arrests total would be nigh on 20,000. So, y’know…)

And then we have the conflation of the peaceful UK Uncut event with the acts of vandalism committed by some in the Black Bloc. I expect this level of ignorance/misinformation from the right wing press, but not from this arrogant piece published on the Labour List site earlier today. Other pieces by respected commentators on the centre left such as the New Statesman’s political editor Medhi Hasan followed a similar line.

This (giving the benefit of the doubt) unwanted/unwitting collusion with the media narrative manipulated by the establishment may serve only to hinder the anti cuts movement as a whole. In their haste to be seen as being apart from ‘breakaway’ actions, centre left commentators are only helping the government and MSM to conflate a burgeoning and popular movement with the ideas of riots and violence. The aim of this is clear – all dissent must be quelled and/or pushed to the fringes and identified as the concerns of ‘radicals’ and ‘anarchists’.

We cannot let this happen – the continued attempts by the establishment to focus on the ‘violence’ on Saturday and whether or not it is condoned is designed to put people into a corner and condemn others; a classic divide and rule tactic. There were no riots on Saturday and there was little violence. Some buildings may have been damaged and the vast majority, myself included, would prefer that wasn’t the case, but the proposed cuts will damage people, perhaps even kill them. Those in the mainstream must start changing the discourse so that it focuses on the real story, not manufactured outrage at minor outbreaks of vandalism.

The title of this piece is taken from a track by the US rapper Busdriver wherein he refers to George W Bush, or so it has been interpreted, as a “defrosted Cro-Magnon man” (or maybe Schwarzenegger?). Perhaps that label doesn’t apply so much to Cameron (although there are some in his party…), but if these cuts go through, their disastrous impact on our society in terms of health, education, housing etc. will mean that the troglodytes have indeed won.

Gold Plated Armchairs

I had hoped to go along to the march against the cuts today, well, maybe not the march but perhaps one of the UK Uncut bails ins. In reality, I probably can’t risk exposing my current mental frailty to the West End on a normal Saturday let alone one like today, and the bail in I had earmarked didn’t go ahead as the target had preemptively shut.

Feeling guilty (default mode), I decided to become part of the Armchair Army on Twitter and Facebook. These are people who, like me, could not attend for a multitude of reasons but wanted to play a part. With the telly switched on to BBC24 and my Twitter feed fairly flying along like a ticker tape trying to outdo Usain Bolt, I began my afternoon.

We had been provided with a list of email addresses consisting of mainstream media outlets and senior members of our lovely government. At various points in the afternoon I fired off group emails, initially explaining the reasons for the march etc., and then in reaction to events as they unfolded and the way they were being reported.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, I was busy taking in information as it came through, analysing, deciding what I should retweet to keep others informed, and giving my own views on events based on what was being reported from those on the ground, and what I was seeing courtesy of the BBC.

Ah yes, the BBC. I love the BBC. No, I bloody love the BBC. But today I was made to feel ashamed of that love. One of the first things I heard was someone from the right wing Taxpayers Alliance being allowed to spout his guff completely unchallenged. Yet again the myth was trotted out that public sector spending and gold plated pensions are to blame. I mean, really, don’t these people have any sense of dignity; “gold plated pensions”, the hallmark of a morally deficient moron with no other argument to offer in their attempt to turn people against the ‘enemy’ – good old divide and rule. By the way, the head of the Taxpayers Alliance lives in France and pays no tax here. Funny, that.

The next person to be ‘interviewed’ was Francis Maude, sans neck wear in order to appear, what? Friendly? Not part of the establishment? Down with the people? He made it quite clear he was down with the people as he sympathised with their efforts, but it was all Gordon Brown’s fault. Of course it was. If we have a Tory government in 2026 and there’s a stock market crash, we will be told it’s Gordon Brown’s fault. Again, where’s the dignity? Where’s the argument? Nothing to do with the past two decades of neo-liberalism and financial/corporate deregulation finally bearing its rotten fruit, Francis? Nothing to do with the bankers bringing us into recession thereby necessitating extra spending in the public sector as jobs were lost and businesses went bust? What about Nobel prize winning economists who have decried the need for austerity measures? These were questions that the BBC journo could have put to him, but instead she sat there nodding and accepted his words as golden.

And then we had someone from the anti-cuts side who put their arguments forward… Oh, no. We didn’t. Perhaps they were all busy on the march, but the BBC could have taped an interview, no?

The unchallenged statements from the Taxpayers Alliance spod and Francis Maude were repeated at regular intervals during the afternoon. Yet whenever those on the march were spoken to they were challenged with questions concerning debt, deficit, and “do you really think this will achieve anything?”. Balance, BBC – it’s not just a matter of physics.

Of course, the highlight of the media afternoon was when a few ‘anarchists’ broke off from the march and threw some paint at Top Shop. This was conveniently timed to coincide with Ed Miliband’s speech in Hyde Park so the news channels could split screen him with pics of a ‘riot’! I’m not one for conspiracy theories but rumours of agents provocateur abounded, and one of the protesters was seen to flash a badge at police lines and be let past. The Tunbridge Wells branch of UK Uncut were witness to a Sky journo offering 25 quid to someone to lob a brick at a window. There were also police reports of light bulbs filled with ammonia being thrown. Quite apart from the logistics involved in preparing such missiles, people on the ground could not smell any ammonia, and if you’ve ever had the misfortune to do so, you’ll know its potency. So…

Things got even better for the news crews when UK Uncut made their move to their secret target, Fortnum and Mason. F & M is in the main owned by Associated British Foods with a 54% stake. ABF are known tax avoiders to the tune of tens of millions of pounds (UK Uncut press release here). ‘The Queen’s favourite corner shop’ is also a symbol of wealth and privilege and doubtless used by many of the people either behind our current financial troubles, or those proposing to resolve matters by unfairly blaming and decimating the public sector. A suitable target in this writer’s view.

Contrary to what you may be told by your television, radios or newspapers, UK Uncut are a peaceful organisation and not aligned with the ‘Black Bloc’ so called anarchists letting off fireworks and “tipping over bins” (seriously, this was a BBC headline). They aim to occupy the premises of organisations who have played a part in depriving our economy of many billions in order to hold them to account. Once inside F & M, the poetry readings began. Journalist Laurie Penny reported on Twitter that “Someone knocked over a stack of chocolate bunnies. Other protesters sternly ask them to pick it all up. ‘That’s just unnecessary'” – here’s a pic of the anarchy within (taken by Ellie May O’Bevan):

It was at about this time, after five hours of keyboard pounding and with my PC threatening to headbutt me, I lay down my sore fingers and went to buy some eggs and stuff. Then I came home and dropped off on the sofa.

I logged back on at around 11pm, switched BBC24 back on, and saw that during my time off things hadn’t changed. I was getting updated reports from those in Trafalgar Square via Twitter but they didn’t seem to gel with what the BBC was telling me. I was told by a policeman that those inside the Trafalgar kettle were “criminal yobs” – this again was taken as golden by the news desk. They then spoke to Laurie Penny who was inside the kettle – she explained the situation as it was happening, that the people being contained were not all criminal yobs etc., but her words were not taken so easily by the BBC and she was constantly challenged and badgered over her take on events. I don’t know Laurie, but I follow her on Twitter and read her journalism and she strikes me as someone who seeks to report the truth, and most certainly not a criminal yob. I was also getting tweets from UK Uncut stalwart Chris Coltrane detailing events that showed events in a different light from the police perspective. Again, Chris doesn’t really doesn’t really come across as a yob.

The tweets from Laurie and Chris showed that there was a clear problem with the way Trafalgar Square was being policed. Up until a certain point all was peaceful and people were having a good time winding down after a busy and successful day. Then the police crashed in, panic ensued and some among the protesters were provoked into stupid reaction. Most were just scared. I have experience of this from demos I’ve been on – in fact, after a Liverpool dockers march in the mid-90s I was in the square as the partying began. As we were hungry my girlfriend and I decided to pop off to a cheap restaurant we knew just off Leicester Square for something to eat. By the time we returned there was a cordon of police around Trafalgar Square with no-one being let in or out (sound familiar?), and things were getting fraught. The same thing happened at a march against the Criminal Justice Bill in Hyde Park the year before, and at the J18 march in 1999… I think you see what I’m getting at. My experience is that there is only major trouble at demos/protests/marches when the police turn heavy, but the media narrative will parrot the establishment line that the police were only doing what was necessary. The tweets I’ve seen show that it’s considered necessary to bully, intimidate and outright beat people into submission. The police were not upholding the law today, they were defending the establishment. But what’s new?

That about brings us up to speed. And my thoughts on the march? Anger at reporting that at best can be described as unbalanced, and at worst biased. Anger at the use of our police as government stormtroopers. But, overwhelmingly, pride at what I saw today. Hundreds of thousands of people from across the spectrum of society gathered to show that we will not be lied to and shat on by a government only interested in protecting vested interests and wrecking all that is good about this country, our country. And for each of those on the streets there is an uncountable number of us who did not attend but agree with and cheer what they achieved. Cameron and Clegg mindlessly, meaninglessly chant their mantra, “We’re all in this together” – today they were shown what that really means.

The march was and must be seen as an inspiration and a sign of what’s to come. The people behind it have declared that we will not stop opposing this government’s attack on us and to this end we must stay strong and ignore the naysayers. To those who ask what was achieved, tell them a show of unity that brought together and inspired a huge number of people, that showed them they are not alone and that the anti-cuts movement is so much more than a fringe concern, but is in fact moving into the mainstream of the political milieu.

We must also not be drawn into the media narrative whereby we feel we have to apologise for those few who threw stones, that they ruined the day. All this achieves is to service the needs of the establishment and give them the validation to continue with their stormtrooper tactics. Hundreds of thousands of people came together and made a stand against the injustice being perpetrated on our society, a few of them threw some stones and damaged some buildings – what should we be concentrating on?

You can read a first hand account of the day at Lenin’s Tomb. I owe thanks to him and also to the many others who tweeted and retweeted information throughout the day.

And finally, a picture of a man who symbolises the fight for all that is fair in our society, 85 years young and still going strong, the wonderful Tony Benn. He hasn’t stopped fighting, and neither must we.

How I Became A Spoonie

I’m not having a great time at the moment, the black dog has me in its maws and all that entails… but! When you’re struggling it’s wonderful to read something which reflects some of what you feel and clarifies thoughts and feelings in one easy to find place. It also helps in that you can show it to others and say “Look, that” as a way of explaining your strange behaviour/actions/inaction. Earlier today I found such a thing via a link in the latest blog post by @suey2y on that there Twitter. Sue writes an insightful, honest and important blog at Diary of a Benefit Scrounger chronicling her life with Crohn’s and how it affects her personally and politically. I really do recommend a read – lately, she has been looking into the changes to welfare being thrust upon us in the name of “necessary cuts” by a government seemingly intent on destroying what little there is available to help those who need it. It makes for some angry reading.

Contained within Sue’s latest post was a link to an article on “spoonies”, a term I’ve seen used but never fully understood the meaning of. Entitled ‘The Spoon Theory’ and written by Christine Miserandino who suffers with Lupus, it tells the story of how Christine one day explained to a friend how her illness affected her by using spoons. Yes, spoons. And it makes a whole lot of sense. It can be found here and I really recommend that you read it for an insight into how sufferers of chronic illnesses try to cope with life, the universe and everything.

As I wrote above, I’m not exactly on top form right now – my depression has a good, tight hold of me and has confined me to my flat. Sounds melodramatic? I know, I feel slightly stupid as I write it, but I can only give you the facts. Use the Spoon Theory, though, and it all makes a bit more sense. Christine uses the concept of having a limited number of spoons available to parallel the choices and decision making that people with chronic conditions face every day; she also outlines the sometimes exhaustive planning this entails. I understand this as, even when I’m feeling relatively alright, I still have to think ahead and plan things in order to avoid complications. Going out to a gig or meeting friends? The journey must be planned in order that possible obstacles can be avoided, the venue needs to be assessed, and an exit strategy needs to be in place.

At the moment, most of my spoons go on existing; on getting out, or off, of bed; making something to eat; remembering to take my meds – this leaves precious few, if any, spoons available for other things in life, such as leaving the flat, going to work, even talking to friends on the phone. And so I have to plan things very carefully indeed. Today I managed to get out of bed, made eggs on toast and I have taken my meds; tomorrow I may even make a proper meal. But… On Thursday this week there is a joint leaving do being held for friends and colleagues who, like me, have chosen to take voluntary redundancy from our employer. My last official day is April 14th, but due to leave accrued my last working day is this Friday coming, and it would be great to say goodbye properly to people I have a lot of time for and have enjoyed working with. This is where the spoons and planning come into play. I have to think very carefully about things. The journey shouldn’t be too much of a problem – it involves two buses but isn’t horrendous, the venue is in an area I know very well, and it would be fantastic to see people. Look back, though, and see that most, if not all, of my spoons are going towards the basics of life at the moment. It would only take one bus journey to go and see some close friends in their respective abodes (much “safer” than a pub), but I haven’t even managed that in a while. Hell, I don’t even have to catch the bus, they could come to me, if I let them…

This is the problem. What if I miscalculate and run out of spoons? I have no doubt that I would be looked after and helped by my friends, but the damage isn’t only in having a turn and being a momentary “burden” on them. The real damage will be done on the inside, to my invisible illness. I have attempted to act beyond my capabilities before, and I know the impact this can have on my mental well being. At times like this life becomes one big risk assessment.

And I can’t risk being driven even further down as there is another gathering I have been invited to. The father of one of my friends died last weekend and I want to be there to support him at the funeral. This is one spoon that I have to allocate.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t go to the do on Thursday, but it does mean that I have to think very carefully about it and about the risk involved considering my current state. Reading about the Spoon Theory has helped me with this in terms of clarifying my thought process and perhaps also in helping to better explain my illness and how it affects me. I am now a spoonie. I understand that a major driver in my decision to apply for voluntary redundancy was taking into account the detrimental effect the shenanigans at work over the last two years has affected my health and continues to – I simply don’t have enough spoons available to risk my health further by working there.

Finally, on a more political note, the choices that may seem straightforward to us can in fact seem like an endless conflict to others, a conflict between what they would like to do and what they can do. Right now the already limited number of spoons available to people with chronic conditions is being threatened by the actions of this government and people will find their choices becoming even harder to make; already difficult lives will become even more difficult. To learn more about what’s being done you can read blogs such as Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, and also take a look at campaigns such as Keep Our NHS Public and UKuncut. If, indeed, we are all in this together, then we need to show the government exactly what that means.

Politics, a slight return

March 13, 2011 1 comment

After my last two more personal posts, a briefer blog today, inspired by some thoughts that I wanted to get down somewhere safe. First, some additional reading in the shape of David Mitchell’s excellent column in The Observer today, (although I lay claim to coming up with the whole Klingons being the enemies of Enterprise bit as I tweeted it early last week) – it was reading this that prompted the thoughts you see below.

I see an irony in Cameron’s new (latest!) attack on the public sector wherein he complains about bureaucracy and suchlike. In my own experience the public sector has become top heavy over the last decade but this is due, in my opinion, to the use of private sector practices and and paradigms in the public sector, something that was initiated by Blair’s neo-liberal New Labour.

Senior posts have increased and been filled by strategists and consultants whose only products are reports and project plans that rarely reflect the actual reality of of the working environment, or the needs of the ‘citizens’ they are supposed to be helping. In the organisation where I work the wage bill for senior management posts (I place the line at local government grade PO8 and above) has increased dramatically over the last decade. Added to this we now hear highly paid public sector CEOs stating that they are worth their money because they could be paid more in the private sector! This conflation of private sector ideals with public sector needs just does not work, but it is something encouraged by the neo-liberal governments of Blair, and now Cameron. Aye, and there’s the rub.

There is now a huge swathe of professional managers in the public sector who are disconnected from the shop floor and only see what they are supposed to manage in the abstract context of spreadsheets and reports. They then act on these without consulting the people who actually do the work, often imposing unnecessary tasks and unrealistic targets in order to comply with the seemingly arbitrary Key Performance Indicators drawn up by central government. This can only lead to confusion and, in some cases, poorer service delivery. But when that happens, it’s the workers who get it in the neck at a local level – the senior managers will manipulate the figures in order to show themselves in the best possible light.

And the further irony? The redundancies in my organisation have only affected those working on the frontline – as of yet there has been nothing announced regarding senior management posts. Of course, ultimately, we know these attacks on the public sector are a game of smoke and mirrors designed to hide the fact that the swingeing cuts being imposed by Cameron and his cabinet of millionaires are ideological in basis rather than being of necessity as they claim. There are further thoughts jumbled in my head on this matter and I may write more, once I’m made redundant.

Finally, in the manner of news programmes, we end on a happier note – the banker seen taunting NHS workers with a £10 note has been suspended by his employers, Deutsche Bank. I wonder if he can spell schadenfreude

What has Twitter ever done for me?

March 11, 2011 2 comments

Once a week I am faced with a genuine dilemma caused by the Twitter institution of Follow Friday (#FF). Fellow Twitterers, Tweeters, Tweeple, Twits, call us what you will, will know of what I speak. Under the ‘rules’ of #FF one tweets the usernames of of other users that one deems follow worthy, as it were. This is done in order to bring them to the attention of your own followers in the promise that knowledge, humour, insight, debate, silliness, mild flirtation, and other such bounties will be theirs if they also choose to follow the recommendees.

My problem is that since taking up Twitter seriously I have come across many such people who do, to my mind, provide these things, never mind the people I already knew who did so and continue to do so.

Being a chap of varied interests I now follow over 460 Twitter accounts – many of these I would have picked up due to their being the ‘official’ outlet for my interests in music, comedy, politics, football etc., and of course there are the friends and people I know who I would naturally link up with on a social network. In addition to this, however, I have also followed, and in some cases, befriended (in a cyber sense) a large number of lovely people/organisations that I would not have known of had it not been for the various links, retweets, and indeed, #FF recommendations that have come my way. These may be friends of friends, people with a shared interest, or even people that have seen one of my own tweets retweeted. There are also, of course, the spammers, whom I assiduously block and report for spam – only today I blocked two new ‘followers’, one Islamic organisation and one Jewish organisation both of whom I can only assume had picked up on a tweet of mine yesterday. Both were spammers and as such had to go, even though my number of followers might be triple what it is if I did not pursue such a rigorous policy. But I’m not in it for the glory.

I’m quite a political (superfurry) animal and so a lot of the new contacts I have picked up are concerned with that sphere, in particular the growing and varied campaigns against the destruction of the public sector in this country and attempting to hold to account those responsible; the ongoing fight against such lunatic fringe groups as the BNP and EDL; and more recently people and groups reporting on the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East (as I typed that, classic electro track ‘Egypt Egypt’ by The Egyptian Lover came on shuffle on my media player – spooky!). Through these contacts I have come across a huge amount of information delivered to my fingertips, information I otherwise may not have been aware of and which has increased my knowledge of, and in some cases participation in, the panoply of campaigns and political events going on around us. It has been said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Well, balls to that, I want to know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what I may be able to do about it – to that end Twitter is an invaluable resource for me.

And then there are those who I have linked up with due to shared cultural interests. For instance, you may not have guessed, but I’m rather a fan of Super Furry Animals (otherwise known as the best band in the world, yes, that’s what I said, big whoop – wanna fight about it?), and due to this have forged cyber friendships with a number of fellow furry travellers which go beyond the mutual adoration of Gruff Rhys (God) and into other aspects of life as well, such as mutual hatred of Mumford & Sons (the antichrist). Due to one of these new friends I even got to see God (Gruff Rhys) performing at a TV recording last month – thank you so much, Claire. Comedy also brings people together and I have hooked up with fellow lovers of what makes the world a slightly easier place to live in, that being laughter.

Those who read my last blog will know that, as Alan Partridge once did, I suffer from being clinically sad. I said in that blog that the internet is a lifeline for me at times, and Twitter is the epitome of this. When I feel unable to cope with going out and dealing with ‘people’ (or bastard coated bastards filled with bastards, as Bob Kelso MD once said), I can log on to Twitter and other places and stay in touch with friends and what’s going on in the world. I am allowed to express myself at a safe distance. In the case of my last blog, I received many kind words from people who read it, and that helps, you know?

So now we come back to the dilemma I mentioned at the top of this piece: Follow Friday. Perhaps I take it too seriously, but I find myself, for want of a better word, indebted to those I follow for the information, laughs, insight and friendship they provide, and so feel that singling out a few for attention is somehow shortchanging everyone else. To this end, I use the caveat “See my lists and follow the people on them”, and I mean it. I could just list all 460+ I follow, but I’m too lazy and people would be too bored. Hell, my lists are even categorised to make it easier, so, erm, yeah. This dilemma, though, is a small price to pay for what I’ve gained. Twitter may not have built any aqueducts or sorted out the sanitation, but what it has done is provided a conduit for a new flow of knowledge and, in some cases, friendships. Follow that.

(Geddit? “Follow that”! Eh? Eh? Sod yer, I’ll get me coat…)

… so begins another weary day

March 7, 2011 7 comments

Hello and welcome to my latest blog. This one is more personal than the previous efforts, which has lead to my not knowing quite how to start it, but we’ll see how it goes…

Just over 10 years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression. This followed a mental breakdown that lead to my being a quivering wreck who couldn’t cope with the simple things in life, such as catching the train to work and talking to people. The breakdown itself was a reaction to an ever growing problem that had been building up for a couple of years, but that problem in itself had been fed by my until then undiagnosed mental health issues.

Being diagnosed was a good thing, after all you don’t know how to deal with a problem if you don’t know what it is. However, my initial reaction was, if not completely hostile, somewhat confused. Although the clues to my illness over the previous few years now became apparent to me, I had difficulty accepting my new label. To put it bluntly, I had been told I was mental, and that’s bad, right?

Well, no. As I learned more about depression, I began to realise that ignorance is very far from bliss and it can only foster the sort of preconceptions and prejudice that I myself held about mental illness. And I’m an enlightened guy, probably among the most liberal kind of yogurt knitting, latte sipping Guardian readers, if you will. I learned that just as a broken leg needed care and fixing, the same goes for a broken mind. Or a broken brain to be more precise, my problem eventually being pinpointed as suffering from a chemical imbalance. To this end I’ve been on medication for the last 10 years, several different kinds as it’s difficult to say what will benefit a person most and finding the right meds is essentially a question of trial and error, subject to the whims of brain chemistry and all that medical malarkey. But I think we’ve found the right one for now – a heavy dose of venlafaxine a day keeps the madness away. Ahem.

But it doesn’t cure the depression. In some cases meds are used to help people get on an even keel while they sort out the problems that may have caused their illness. Much depression is caused by life events and is known as reactive depression – a very real issue but something that can hopefully be nullified with the help of anti-depressants and other methods. As time progressed it became clearer that mine wasn’t a reactive depression, but longer term, possibly lifelong. The imbalance in my brain wasn’t caused by the traumatic events I went through, they merely exacerbated it. My depression is and has been part of me for a long time. The meds just help me to cope with it.

By the time this conclusion was reached I was a lot more accepting of my illness and wasn’t as upset as I could have been. If anything, it explained a lot about my behaviour in the years before being diagnosed. In particular I remember my partner being increasingly frustrated as I experienced more and more frequently ‘moods’ where I would in essence shut down and become unresponsive. It also explained the suicidal ideation that had at times become an everyday part of my life, the problems I had experienced at university, the… well, it explained a hell of a lot.

One of the psychologists I saw laid it out using a simple graph (bear with me, I’m no mathematician). Take a horizontal line as the X axis, this line is 0, or ‘normality’, the base line for most people’s mental well being; neutrality. A vertical line cuts through the X axis, this is the Y axis which goes up to +10 above X, and -10 below X. Most people will start at 0 and then draw a line along the X axis, sometimes moving up, sometimes dipping under. My psychologist told me that instead of starting at 0, my base line is in fact at -2 or -3. In order to even be ‘normal’ I have to bloody work at it!

So how has my life been over the last 10 years? After nearly 5 months off following my initial breakdown I returned to work and things gradually returned to a kind of normality. There have been several relapses that have occasioned further periods off work, but in the main I find that work helps me in the sense that it provides a structure and a distraction. I can wake up of a morning feeling like hell but I drag myself into work, sit there quietly for a while, and find myself being taken over by the daily goings on. Then I go home knackered, too tired to take much notice of the black dog nipping at my head.

I also have a good support network of people who understand when I go wrong and don’t judge but try to help, or know well enough to leave me alone. My mother, friends and work colleagues have been wonderful, and the help I’ve received from professionals has been in the main top notch. My GP takes the time to listen to me and has referred me for several lengthy periods of therapy, and my consultant’s team has also looked after me. I’ve turned up several times without appts only to be seen straightaway with no complaint – I’ve also taken myself of to the mental health unit a few times when in crisis and been brought back from the brink. But maybe this will change with the current decimation of the NHS by the government: my consultant has already told me she will no longer be able to look after me thereby ending a 10 year relationship – I’ll have to get another referral from my GP and can he justify the cost? See, I had to get a bit of politics in there.

And the times when it gets too bad to cope with? I retreat into myself, cutting off links with the outside world. My flat becomes my sanctuary and I wrap the depression around me like a malevolent duvet. Anxiety is my constant companion and I find it hard to even contemplate a bus journey further than a few miles from my sanctuary – it’s like there’s an invisible cord tying me to the flat. This has lead to plenty of missed events, the worst being my annual trip to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 when, a couple of hours after arriving, I went to Waverly train station and bought a ticket back home for the following day. I then returned to the flat I had rented and collapsed until it was time to catch the train. And I bloody love Edinburgh and the Fringe, and had a group of good friends in the city who could have helped me if only I had let them. But I shut them out. It’s what I do.

Things have been particularly bad over the past two years and I’ve even had the ‘medication’ of work taken from me for reasons I may well write about at a later date – those very same reasons have also served to make things much worse for me at times. In these circumstances the internet has become a lifeline for me. It allows me to stay in touch with friends and the outside world, although when I’m really bad I find it difficult even to type a few words on a message board or Twitter. It’s also allowing me to express myself through this blog, which begs the question…

Why am I writing this for all to see? Well, I find that writing helps me, be it about political stuff (see previous blogs), or more personal goings on like my illness. I think it provides some of the structure/distraction I miss from work, and a sense of achievement when I finish a piece. I’m also no longer ashamed of my illness – why should I be?

Stephen Fry once said that he felt sorry for depressives who don’t suffer from bipolar as they don’t get the amazing highs that such as he can experience. That’s me, that is. I’m unipolar, I just get the bad stuff. Fry also said that if there was an off switch for his illness he probably wouldn’t flick it, and I sort of understand that. Despite the problems it causes, my depression feels part of me. Learning about it has helped me to become a lot more understanding of people, and not just fellow sufferers. The truth is I’ve adapted to it, I’ve had to. And if I have to take pills for the rest of my life, so what? A close friend takes dozens of pills and has a daily injection of tinzaparin to stop fatal blood clots. We do what we have to do. I’m still bloody good at my job, reasonably intelligent, have bloody good friends, and a nicely dark sense of humour. My illness shows no signs of going away, but I can do things to try and lessen its impact. This year I have made a major life decision and taken voluntary redundancy. Not sure what will happen next, but hopefully it will be the push I need to move me on to the next stage of life – that may be the more prosaic move into an advocacy role in my housing career, or it may be the dream of being a ‘proper’ writer. Who knows?

My name is Andy and I have depression – it’s part of me, but it doesn’t define me. Not all the time, least ways…